I am probably not the grand daughter she had hoped for, but I am one she’s learned to love by now. We’re sitting together on the sofa when her breathing becomes pained and I look at her as I rarely do, concern written all over my hard-to-hide-its-expression face. I’ve never seen her like this till now, and the reality of her illness settles in.
Cancer. The big C. Everyone talks about it in the news, it seems, and I ignore the clinical, antiseptic voices of reason. She’s not Big C to me, she’s Big M – Big Mira, Big Mother, the woman who walked me to school every day when I was little and chased me around the house comically with a wooden kitchen spoon when I’d misbehaved, a scene worthy of a Tom & Jerry episode.
She’s the girl who was pampered in childhood – her dad a famous salesman in their small town, she had chocolate and a white frilly dress for her first communion (although, the boots were still brown, because it was war time and resources were scarce even for her well-off father).
She’s the young woman who met my grandfather and fell in love with him. One night at a party, a solemn man came to tell him his renegade father had died. He nodded, came back to her and when she asked what was wrong, in an indifferent voice, Grandfather replied – „The old man’s just died.“ Big M looked at him uncertain of what to do next.
„Do you want to go home?“
„No, I want to dance.“
She stretched out her hand and so they danced in the small socialist gymnasium, in their small town I was born in but never got to know (for real) except through stories such as this one, that Big M told me. They lived in their small flat with Grandfather’s mother and his grandma, and people slowly died around them, first her mother, then her father, then Grandfather’s mother, until she had only this one family – us.
A gypsy woman once told her, in her youth, she would live in a big building in a big city. Big M smiled at her politely and gave her some cash, but was oblivious to the warning. Her small life was perfect, no desire for grandeur stirring within. That was before another war came, before quarrels between ambitious men made their mark on all of us, before the fall of yet another regime that promised prosperity.
All of us – my parents with their infant, my mother’s brother and his wife and her son, their friends and acquaintances (most of them, at least) – settled in a big city. We adjusted to its ways quickly. I became a child of another time, they – the lost generation.
Big M was our glue.
She tended to every sick and dying person, even those who didn’t deserve it. She cried when we went on holiday and worried more than my own mother when I left the nest every once in a while to try my luck in the big white world, as she liked to call it. She knew about my lovers and laughed with me when I complained. She told me stories about my ancestors, about the importance of knowing where you come from. I never took her seriously as a kid, but as I reached adolescence and realized I was other – her stories became my home.
In many ways, she was mother to us all – all the lost little children of my family: myself, my father, my uncle, my mother.
She taught me about what being a woman truly meant. She taught me about strength. Even at her sickest, riddled with cancer and chemo and bald – we laughed as we rearranged her wig and I noted how absolutely terrible the hairstyle was. Tried to fix it with bobby pins, and failed miserably. Big M just smiled and took to braiding my own hair.
„I only wished I could see you graduate,“ she’d said back then.
But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. More time, more moments of her telling me histories nobody remembered anymore, more giggles about bad decisions in my choice of men.
„This might be it, you know,“ she said to me not long ago. I brushed her off, said if she’d waited all this time, she might as well stick around to see my wedding, at least, if not her great grandchildren. I was finishing my degree and she still seemed the same Big M, the same strength in her bones now covered by blotches on the X-ray pictures, metastases.
Then the day came, me and her on the sofa, and she couldn’t breathe, and her mouth stung, her pain meds painfully not working. As she began gasping for air, I began praying to a God I had never truly believed in. I prayed to myself, most of all.
I wished I could be quick about it. I wished I had the guts to do something gutsy – accept a proposal, hurry my life along, so that when she does go – as I know everyone will – it’ll be to the sight of me happy, and settled – even for a short time. I wanted her to braid my hair before my wedding and sing along to old tunes played by a dodgy band afterwards, I wanted her to see I did not take her words for granted. That I was capable of being a woman like her, that I could bake a cake or roll some Bosnian pie, that I would never forget where she – and I – came from.
When I told her about this, Big M only smiled.
„Do you remember what your grandmother’s last words were,“ she asked, thinking about my father’s mother who had lived with us until she died – another person Big M had tended to in detail, even as she was sick herself.
„What were they?“ I obliged her, even though I knew what her answer would be, and that they surely weren’t the very last words grandma V had said.
„Nine for one, and one for nine.“
Grandpa, Big M, my father and mother and me, my uncle and aunt and cousin, and grandma V. That’s who we were, who we are. A family.
Big E, Big M, Middle O, Middle J, Little M. Middle B, Middle A, Little D. Big V,
There are no C’s, no illness, in our core. We love one another, and do what we can. We survive, daily. We are a unit, unaffected by capital letters.
All of us will be kept safe,
in my stories.